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A Line of Book-Lovers a Mile Long

Jeff O'Neal

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

I was there. It was wild.

Just one story today, because for once I have a first-hand account of something interesting.

A Mile-Long Line of Book Lovers Queue for a Rare Event at The Largest Independent Bookstore in the U.S.

This weekend, Powell’s Books, the venerable, city-block size bookstore here in Portland, Oregon did something it hadn’t for more than two decades. It had a warehouse sale. $3 hardbacks. $2 paperbacks. $1 mass market. As a Stumptown book person myself, I took the family down to check it out. Best to get there a little early I thought, so I was very proud to get there a full half-hour before the doors opened.

And this is what met us there.

I walked the full line and it was just about a mile long (my son and I did a little on-the-fly guesstimating and put the number in line at about 3000. And then the doors opened and we moved….just a little. It was clear that this was going to be an all-day affair, so we made tracks for the regular Powell’s downtown location, which was jammed with people just like us — defectees ready to pay full retail instead of several hours’ worth of our lives.

Powell’s had to cry uncle mid-way through the day Saturday, and folks who had gutted out the line received 10% discount coupons for future buying. Reports were mixed, some were pretty happy with what they could get after enduring the wait, others seemed frustrated that things were either picked over or limited. Folks who stayed in line, though, seemed to make a day of it: the weather was cool and overcast so pretty much perfect standing-around weather. It had, for the hour or so I was there, sort of a music festival vibe, where people put aside the pretty-bad ROI on their time in favor of having an experience.

So how did this happen? How did this wildly exceed the crowd Powell’s anticipated? And why exactly were people, to a first approximation, pretty unbothered (in the comments I read, the people most wound up about it being nuts were those observing from afar).

To take the turn-out first, I think there were two factors. First, Portland loves Powell’s and a Powell’s special event is special. Most of us weren’t around or old enough for the last warehouse sale which meant a) this was novel and b) we didn’t really know what to expect. A powerful combo. Second: the internet is a thing. People messaged each other in the weeks before: “did you see that Powell’s is having a warehouse sale? Want to go? Yea, that would be fun?” It was free, the weather was fine, and the stakes were low. And then once you got there, the line had a gravitational pull of its own.

The intrepid thousands that stayed, then, were a self-selecting bunch. They hadn’t overpaid Ticketmaster or booked a hotel or flown from Nevada. Instead of brunch, they were doing this. And if you hated it, you either didn’t get out of your car once you saw a mini-Woodstock of undercuts and literary tote bags. Or you did, but once the reality of the situation set in, you bailed (like we did, brunch tables were easy to get).

Perhaps I am as good an example of this as any: we drove down, got out, walked around, spent 45 minutes standing in line, talked with some folks about how wild this was, and then were on our merry way. On the car ride back home, we were glad to have seen it — at this point, a sackful of Percy Jackson books for $10 wasn’t the draw. Seeing a bunch of people who care about books and were willing to put up with some hassle to try something was…pretty great. I definitely would give up on it again in the future.

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